As the name suggests, a unitary form of government is a single unit state where the
central government is supreme. All the power rests with the central government and any divisions in governance, for instance, in the form of administrative or sub-national units, have only those powers that the central government gives them. While democratic systems have become popular over the world, a number of states still have a unitary system of government among several other archetypes that are found in different countries. Some of the examples of a unitary form of government are dictatorships, monarchies and parliamentary governments. Some countries that follow the unitary system of government are France, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Since the power is vested in the Centre, a unitary system of government is based
on the principles of centralization of power. Within such a system, a fair amount of
hegemony is found between different regions in the same country. Thus, local governments follow instructions of the Centre and have only those powers which are delegated by the central government.

Yet, there are no fixed rules to this system and not all countries use the same
principles of centralization and decentralization of powers. One of the major advantages of such a system is the fact that the government at the centre can make quick decision since it has all the powers of rule-making. A significant disadvantage is that there are no ways to keep a check on the activities of the central government. Moreover, most unitary governments have large bureaucracies where the members are not appointed on the basis of popular voting.

Salient Features of Unitary Government

As stated above, a unitary system of government widely differs from one that is federal in its organization. Federal governments, by their very nature, constitutionally divide powers between the centre and the state. No such power division occurs in a unitary system even though the central government, by its own accord, delegate some superficial powers to various states. Moreover, in a federal system, the constitution is supreme and determines the powers between the centre and the states. Both exist as equal before a federal constitution. In contrast, centre is supreme authority in a unitary government.
States function independent of the centre in a federal system whereas in the unitary
system, states are subordinate to the centre. In short, Unitarianism can be referred to as:
‘The concentration of the strength of the state in the hands of one visible sovereign
power, be that power parliament are czar.’ Federalism, on the other hand, is distribution
of force. As has been cited: ‘The sovereign in a federal state is not like the English
parliament an ever wakeful legislator, but like a monarch who slumbers and sleeps. And a monarch who slumbers for years is like a monarch who does not exist.’

A unitary government can have an unwritten yet flexible constitution but federal government cannot go about its daily chores unless it has in its possession a written constitution. Judiciary also plays a very important role in a federal government and also decides on disputes that may crop up among the central and state governments or between other units. These are some of the key differences between federal and state governments. This brings us to the characteristics and features of unitary form of government:

 Centralization of power:

The centre is the reservoir of all powers in unitary system. There exist no province or provincial governments in such a system and
the central government has the constitutional powers to legislate, execute and adjudicate with full might. There is no other institution with this kind of state to share the powers of the central government. Thus, it rules with no external pressure and runs the state and administration free of any checks and balances. Their power is absolute. What powers are to be centralized and decentralized are also decided by the central government. Local governments exist but it is the centre which decides what powers will be given to them. Even these are carried out
with central control or supervision.

Single and simple government: The unitary system of government is a simple
system. There exist no provincial assemblies, executives or upper chambers in the Centre. One exception to this is Britain. Yet, most unitary systems are defined by single central government where the popular voting is held for unicameral legislature. It is the central legislature that legislates and executes. The expenses of such a system are minor and a unified command is adopted in running the state. Democratic systems can be expensive; upper chambers demand finances and weak states cannot afford them. Thus, unitary system is simple and understandable. Its structures and powers also understood easily by the citizens.

 Uniformity of laws:

Laws in unitary system are uniform laws unlike the ones in the federal state. This is one crucial characteristic of a unitary government. Laws are made and executed by the central government for the entire state. They are enforced without any distinction being made for any state. In contrast, in a federal system, the nature of a law can vary from state to state. But in the unitary system, the laws are made uniform on the principles of justice and nature of human beings. In a federation however, laws of similar nature can have sharp contrasts, thus complicating their understanding.

 No distribution of powers:

As stated, within a federation powers are distributed among the federal and the state. In contrast, in the unitary system, no such
distribution of powers is made. All powers rest with the centre. One of the advantages of this lack of distribution of power is that the government does not have to bother about delegating powers and instead concentrate on more welfare issues and development of the state and citizens.

Flexible constitutions:

Flexibility is what defines the constitutions of unitary states. It is within federal systems that a rigid constitution is required so as to
clearly define and maintain the relationship between the centre and the state.
One of the advantages of a flexible constitution is that it can be altered as be the
needs of the state amid the continuously changing circumstances. As said, a
constitution is a document which is necessary to run a state according to the
changing orientations. A flexible constitution ensures that the desires and changing
demands of people are included in it accordingly and from time to time. It is
crucial to the idea of progressiveness. Thus, constitutions in unitary systems are
evolutionary and are strong to respond to contingency situations.

Despotism attributes a Unitary State:

A unitary state can turn totalitarian or
despotic when its rulers do not follow rules or move away from the path of patriotism. Since powers are with the Centre and there is no check on the activities of the government, there are higher chances of misuse. Such a government can become absolute and abuse its powers mainly due to the absence of an internal check system.


In contrast to a federation, a unitary system is more responsible. Certain defined institutions have fixed responsibility and this is a significant characteristic of a unitary system. The central government is responsible for legislation, executive for implementation and judiciary for adjudication. Thus, it is these institutions that are responsible for their activities and therefore they try to operate within the law of the land.

 Local government institutions:

Usually in a unitary form of government, the
powers lie in the hands of urban bureaucracy. Such a government has also been found to be limited in the city areas and have no influence in remote towns and villages. Therefore, to maintain its influence in rural areas, the central governments manipulate their affairs through municipalities and other such local institutions. In one way or other, local governments also become important and effective in unitary systems. Such examples are found in states like China and Great Britain where local governments are very powerful. The central government maintains
its influence through local governments and also gives them financial support to
run their daily affairs. In fact, local representatives are elected for these institutions on the guidelines of the central government.

Advantages of Unitary Form of Government

Some advantages of unitary system include:
(i) Throughout the state, uniform policies, laws, political, enforcement, administration
system is maintained.

(ii) There are fewer issues of contention between national and local governments
and less duplication of services.

(iii) Unitary systems have greater unity and stability.

Disadvantages of Unitary Form of Government

Disadvantages of such a form of government include:
(i) Local concerns are usually not the prerogative of the central government.

(ii) Thus, the centre is often at a lax in responding to local problems.

(iii) In case the centre gets involved in local problems, it can easily miss out on the
needs of a large section of other people.